Tanya Gold

I was priced out of London and became the only Jew in the village

In her first Notes From the Diaspora, Tanya Gold reveals what life is like for Jews in West Cornwall

May 26, 2022 12:51

Five years ago, I moved from north London to west Cornwall. I packed up my Jewishness as if in a trunk and moved 300 miles with my husband and child. My ancestors went further for less. So did yours.

I must be honest. I moved to Cornwall for love and a utility room. I was trapped in the giant squid of London housing and London schools with a man who hates London. We lived above a betting shop in Gospel Oak, and I fantasised about a two-bedroom flat in Muswell Hill near outstanding state primary schools. I even dreamt of Muswell Hill one night, imagining it as a walled white city like Gondor in Middle Earth, on an escarpment overlooking the City of London with flags fluttering on its walls. The gates were shut. My subconscious knew it and so did my husband: Gondor/Muswell Hill was closed to us.

He is a comic among other things, and he understands the importance of timing. I showed him the particulars of the two-bedroom flat in Muswell Hill and suggested that, because one outstanding state primary school in Muswell Hill had a vast, paper model of Jane Eyre in its library, our son must attend it “because it’s destiny”. He said, almost idly — and that is when he is at his most dangerous — “Don’t you want a five-bedroom house with a garden and a utility room?” He was right. I did. We moved to a fishing village near Land’s End with my furniture and my Jewishness. My favourite city, Venice, is also a fishing village, though clad in Istrian stone, and since there is now barely 10 miles of land between myself and New York City, it feels relatively cosmopolitan, at least in summer. In winter it just rains.

We are not the first. There was a thriving Jewish community in Penzance during the 18th century tin boom. They departed when it was over.

They left behind a fine cemetery on the outskirts of Penzance, and a synagogue in the town, which is now part of a frightening pub called The Star. There is a small Jewish community in Truro, collected from the remnants of Jews who have wandered here. In the Days of Awe, we worship in a converted barn and surprise the cows with shofar calls. But in the far west there are few of us. For a short while, my wider family fantasised about moving to Cornwall to join us. I cherished this fantasy until I saw the photographs of the house they were considering buying. It looked just like their house in north London, and I knew they weren’t coming.

My husband is an Anglican who grew up in a village near Salisbury Plain where the dead outnumber the living. He understands village life.

He can talk about flower club without laughing, he knows how to befriend vicars and how to pick his battles. Enmity is villages is fine, but it must be planned for. He can grow pumpkins and bake challah using eggs from his own chickens. We used to name them after family members, but they die so regularly that we stopped. The chicken cemetery is crowded with corpses and rhododendron bushes. He is from a farming family, and it is all part of his inheritance. He knows the tepid rhythms of village life.

It took me longer to place my Jewishness here. I think I found it the day I visited Mousehole School and saw a plaque in the playground to the pupils of JFS, who were evacuated here in 1940. Hundreds of people greeted them at Penzance station with sympathy and curiosity. The Cornishman newspaper reporter H Hartley Thomas was among them. He saw a Jewish cockney child say, on seeing the sea: “Cor blimey, I ain’t never seen so much blooming water in all my blooming life”.

I know how he feels.  I wonder if, loving the sea and the granite as I do — land is eternal — I am really a Jewish neo-Pagan. I seek out glittering pools of water and when I saw the huge and famous magnolia tree at Trewidden Gardens, I was so amazed I laughed.

People are curious and kind: anyone from across the Tamar is alien here and Jews are no different. They celebrate Rosh Hashanah at my son’s school and, at Rosh Hashanah, a mother at the school brought me a challah that she baked herself. When she brought it to the door, I cried. I’m a little vexed that the church has not returned my seder plate — they borrowed it for a seder without Jews — but that’s the rhythm of village life.

So here we are, making the Jewish diaspora a little wider, a little longer, a little more. Topol would call it tradition: a-wandering we go.

May 26, 2022 12:51

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive